By Jeremy Gimpel
Every Jewish holiday has a story. A Jewish mystic with a dry sense of humor once told me that most of the time the story goes like this: They tried to kill us. We killed them. Thank God. Let’s eat. Hanukah is not much different but there is one element of the holiday that is unique and unprecedented compared to all other holy days. You can’t find a mention of the holiday anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Every other holiday celebrated from Rosh Hashana to Purim has a source in scripture. With Hanukah, there are a couple of ambiguous prophecies in Zachariah and the book of Daniel that might hint to the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks but there is no explicit reference of the holiday or instruction to celebrate for eight days. Additionally, an entire tractate of the Talmud is generally dedicated to each of the other Jewish holidays yet Hanukah is addressed in a few pages in a seemingly random context with very little discussion about the holiday at all.
With all that said, Hanukah is arguably one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays around the world. In terms of practice, lighting Hanukah candles is second only to the Passover Seder. On a global scale, even if only because of commercial merchandising, people around the world possibly identify Hanukah as the most prominent holiday for the Jewish people.
With no mention in the Bible and only a few pages of Talmud dedicated to the holiday, what exactly made Hanukah into one of our most celebrated national holidays?
To answer the question properly, a little background in order. By the age of 28, Alexander the Great had conquered the civilized world. However, what distinguished Greece through the ages was not its military conquest but rather its cultural imperialism. Hellenization, the spread of Greek culture and philosophy, was the driving force of the empire. Glorifying the body and sanctifying the gymnasium, the Greek empire outlawed circumcision, the study of Torah and sanctifying the Sabbath throughout Judea. Hellenism emerged as the antithesis to everything Judaism held sacred.
As points of contrast, Greek philosophy asserts that everything beautiful is good while Judaism holds that everything good is beautiful. Judaism sanctifies life through acts of love and compassion while Aristotle famously taught, “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid excess in population, some children must be exposed.” (Aristotle-Politics: Book VII: Ch.16).” Euripides recorded that in Greek cities, “Children were thrown into rivers, flung into dung heaps and trenches.” How could the Jewish People not protest? How could we not revolt?
David Ben Gurion once wrote, “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression…. The Jewish people prevailed, won, sustained and enhanced their independence and unique civilization. The Hasmoneans overcame one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history due to the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment.”
We celebrate the victory of the Maccabees because had they lost, the world would’ve been plunged into paganism and our world of compassion and justice could’ve been lost forever. This monumental spiritual and ideological battle happened long after Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah. The fact that Hanukah is not mentioned in scripture is perhaps the greatest message for the Jewish People today.
The Jews in Judea during and after the revolt were not only living Jewish faith. They were living the Jewish story. They saw themselves as a direct continuation of the story of our people. They made no distinction between themselves, Joshua or the Biblical judges. The fact that Nehemiah laid the foundation of the second Temple on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev wasn’t a coincidence but divine orchestration. Continuing the work of Ezra and Nehemiah they established a new holiday.
Even without being mentioned in the Bible, they were a clear continuation of the Biblical drama. A priestly family, untrained and outnumbered, defeated the world’s largest empire of skilled soldiers and organized battalions. The Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and reestablished religious and political autonomy in the Land of Israel. A national holiday was in order. Every Jew at that time celebrated a new holiday, a post Biblical holiday, which has continued around the world more than twenty centuries.
Importantly, Hanukah is the only ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish struggle for national liberation in the Land of Israel. As the Maccabees fought for freedom in our land they were also battling for their chapter in the Jewish story.
Today, as then, the Bible is closed, canonized and sealed forever but the story is far from over.
The Jewish People have returned to our land and are once again battling for our freedom. When we kindle the lights of the Menorah 2,000 years after the Maccabees and recite the traditional benediction: Blessed is He “who has made miracles for our fathers in those days at that time”, we are challenged to see that miracles are also made in our time. As then, Jerusalem has been liberated again and we have been graced with a chance to make our chapter in the story of the Jewish People marvelous.
Judaism is not merely a religion, a spiritual heritage or an ethical lifestyle. We are an ancient living people with a great history and a majestic destiny. The Jewish return to Zion from every country of the world and defending our land against enemy states surrounding every border is a miracle no less astounding than the battle for Jerusalem against the ancient Greeks.
In this hour, it seems as though, once again, the odds are stacked against us. Jews around the world are being swept away by an alternate more sophisticated Hellenism cloaked in pop culture and fast food. From Iran to Hezbollah, the enemies of Israel are preparing for war and we are again outnumbered. In those days at this time…
The national Jewish task undertaken by the patriarchs, pursued by the prophets and continued by their decedents is now entrusted to us. The story of our people is in our hands and the modern State of Israel is the next and most exciting chapter.
The author is a filmmaker, educator and journalist. He is currently the deputy director of the World Mizrachi Movement.